The sun shone brightly through the windows of our plane as we descended through the clouds on our final approach. The small commuter hop from LAX to Santa Barbara was very different from the giant stuffed sardine can that had carried us across the country. As the small plane made its way north up the California coast, I was glued to the window. I had been looking forward to this trip for a very long time. My wife and daughter and I had flown all the way from Maine to see my oldest son Jackson, who has been living out here in California since he was 18. Now 22 years old, it has been almost three years since I have laid eyes on him, and I cannot wait for the plane to touch down.
It was not easy for Jackson growing up. A divorce early in his life left him – like most children in that situation – torn between two households, and struggling to make everyone happy. While he lived with his mother, their relationship was a troubled one, and as soon as he graduated from high school he took steps to get as far away from his mother as he could. That meant moving from Maine to California to make his own way.
We had stayed in touch over these past few years, but with great distance and busy lives, it was hard to stay close. Finally my wife and I decided enough was enough. When we asked our youngest daughter where she wanted to go for her Senior trip she chose California, and we planned this trip to fly out and spend some time with Jackson again at last.
As we gathered our baggage and rented the car, I was filled with thoughts of Jackson. How had he changed? What was he like? Would it be awkward? He was 22 years old now – almost 23. I knew he was no longer that high school kid I had last seen, but I was not sure what exactly to expect.
We had booked our trip many months before, and through a twist of fate, in the meantime Jackson had then moved from Santa Barbara down to San Diego. Since our tickets were non-refundable, we decided to all meet in Santa Barbara for our vacation together anyway. This worked out well for Jackson, as it would be the first time he had been back to Santa Barbara in more than six months, and he was looking forward to seeing his friends there as well.
As we arrived at our hotel and got checked in, I continued to think about Jackson. He had taken a train up from San Diego and was meeting us at our hotel. As we waited for him to arrive, I was filled with more questions. Would we get along? What kind of person had he become? Had he changed? The answer to that last question was – yes or course he has changed. I knew that many things had changed about Jackson – some things I would notice, and some things I might not. One of the big changes I did know about was that since the last time I had seen Jackson he had come out of the closet and told me that he was gay.
This announcement had been met with mixed reviews by his mother’s side of the family. Some were accepting and some – like his mother – still hung up on him when he called. As for me, I was fine with it. I have long believed that love is love, and whatever makes you happy is all right with me. In fact when Jackson had told me he was gay some time ago it had been a huge non-event. While chatting online one night, I asked about any new relationships in his life. Jackson casually mentioned his boyfriend, and that was that. He was out. All I cared about is that he was happy. That he had somebody in his life that cared about him. That he loved and was loved. That’s all.
We were waiting for Jackson to arrive down by the pool, enjoying the setting sun after a long day of travel. I had just begun to unwind when I heard a familiar voice. I turned around and there he was. Quite a bit taller than I remembered, he now towered over me as we hugged. Or maybe every parent wants to remember their child as small. Always needing us to take care of them. Here before me was a full-grown man. Handsome and athletic – with that same disarming smile that probably aided him in getting away with far more than he should have as a child. It felt so good to wrap my arms around him again at last. To finally have that real and tangible proof that he was alive and well. Even though I was dripping wet from the hot tub, I did not care. I threw my arms around him and did not want to let go. All my fears and questions were answered at once. Here was my son at last, and everything was going to be all right.
We spent the next week together in Santa Barbara, getting to know one another again. It really was that, at least for me. I felt as though for the first time we could just hang out and relate to each other. For the first time I got to meet the grown-up that Jackson had become. I only had a week with my son, so I did what I could to learn everything about him. That meant not only grilling him endlessly about his life, but watching him, and listening to him. And most importantly, meeting his friends and the people he used to spend his time with here in Santa Barbara and listening to what they had to say too.
One day while walking around seeing the sights, we stopped into a CVS drugstore for some suntan lotion. “Used to stop here all the time for Red Bull and smokes” Jackson proclaimed as we walked in. We found what we needed and were waiting to check out when the small, somewhat frumpy woman at the register suddenly shouted “Jackson! You’re back!”. Smiling that disarming smile, Jack explained his move to San Diego. She looked him up and down. “You’ve put some weight on your bones. That’s good”. Jackson introduced us as his parents, and she immediately began telling us about what a good boy Jack was. “Always so polite and considerate” she said. She even came around the counter to give Jack a big hug before we could leave the store.
Throughout the week, it seemed Jackson knew everyone we encountered. From the hostess at a restaurant, to a guy just hanging out on the corner. From the staff at every deli and pizza joint in town, to random shoppers in a grocery store. “This is one of my favorite people ever!” from a girl we met in the produce section.
One night, after dinner out we were walking back to the car. Jackson had the remains of his half-finished meal in a to-go box. As we walked down the street a homeless man who I had barely noticed spoke to Jackson as he walked by. I did not hear exactly what he said, but by the time I could turn to look, Jack was handing the man his food. “Much obliged brother”. A second homeless man next to the first made the universal sign for bumming a smoke – two fingers pressed to his lips. Jack didn’t hesitate to dig the man out a smoke and light it for him before wishing them both a good night and hurrying to catch up with the rest of the family. He didn’t say a word, but just kept walking along with us.
I have always believed that you can tell everything you need to know about a person by the company they keep. More specifically, by the impression they make on others as they pass through life.
The best night of our visit was the night one of Jackson’s friends organized a barbecue at their house to celebrate Jacks return visit to Santa Barbara. They invited the whole family – including some friends of ours who had travelled to Santa Barbara to see us, so we all went over together. It was amazing to meet a group of Jackson’s friends like that all at once. These were the people who were my son’s support system when he was alone out here in California. A few were gay, most were not. But that of course did not matter – to me or to them. These were the people who were there for Jackson when I could not be. These people were his family, and a finer bunch of folks I could not have hoped for. Each and every one of them was so kind and so genuine. Taking the time to introduce themselves and say a few words to get to know us. Shaking hands (just like in the old days). Earlier in the day when the supplies were purchased for the barbecue, I had paid for the burger and buns – my contribution to the festivities. Hearing that, several of Jackson’s friends took a collection and tried to repay me. I of course refused the money, but the gesture meant something. Say what you want to about the youth of today. If this group of 20-somethings is any indication, I think the future of this country is in good hands.
I enjoyed getting to know my son again. Not just getting re-acquainted with the son I remembered, but getting to know this fine man he had become. I even got a kick out of his gayness. Not at all effeminate, Jackson was sort of a “manly gay”. Rugged and athletic, he joked about the flamboyantly gay men we saw around town. Comfortable in his own skin, he spoke openly about his relationships, and past lovers. “A guy I dated for a while lives in that apartment” or “Sunday night is gay night at that bar. SO much fun!”. It seemed that Jackson had found that inner-self that had brought him peace. Completely relaxed and at home in his own body, he just made us all feel at home being near him.
And so it was throughout our week in California. I found myself constantly amazed by this person my son had become. So much more mature, so much more evolved than the boy I had known as a teen. I knew that over the past few years he had suffered hardship. He had been poor at times, and at times he had been hungry. There was a period when he was homeless – relying for a while on the generosity of those friends I met at the barbecue. I found wisdom in his eyes that one can only come by honestly. It is life that makes those lessons. From the casual way he talked about some of the horrendous jobs he had taken to survive, to the curving white scar on his chin – a reminder of a night he and his friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were jumped and beaten.
Jackson had not just grown up while he was out here on the west coast, he had grown into a fine human being. He had not just survived, but he had thrived. At one point I told him as much, and hastened to add that I was sure I had very little to do with all that. Jackson assured me that I had made a big difference in his life, but I think that might have been to make me feel better. Most of all I was filled all week with an overwhelming sense of pride. Jackson had become that which all parents hope for their child – a happy, adjusted, loved, responsible, productive caring human being.
Jackson is living with his lover in San Diego now. Someday he will get back to taking classes towards his education degree so he can be a teacher. He would be an amazing teacher. He also talks about wanting someday to adopt children. I hope he does that. I can think of no better father-figure in the world than my son.
As we said our goodbyes and prepared for the long trip home to Maine, I was filled with sadness. We made promises to return next year and visit San Diego this time. I hate that there is such distance between us, but I am comforted by the knowledge that whatever life throws at him, Jackson will be just fine.
Jackson, Me, Ginger and Marissa – Brisas Del Mar, Santa Barbara